The Third Sunday in Advent December 15, 2002
66, 448, 616, 784
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.” So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, “Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.” And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.” But he answered one of them and said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.
Dear fellow workers of the Lord’s vineyard who with me and all people are equally sinful and equally redeemed:
IT’S NOT FAIR…ITS JUST NOT FAIR!!! Have you ever heard this lament? Or have you perhaps spoken it yourself?
Our nation prides itself on RIGHTS and JUSTICE, so throughout our national history changes have been made to give equal rights and to deal fairly with all people, regardless of race or gender or any other discriminatory factor. Dealing fairly with one another is certainly something God commands and is pleasing to Him.
However, “fairness” is often wrongly equated with “equal outcome” or “exact same life.” Therefore, in the name of “fairness” our society has robbed people by overlooking their unique characteristics and qualities. In the name of “fairness” God’s creative, biological differences between men and women are blurred and ignored. In the same spirit of fairness, society robs children of being children by expecting them to be treated like adults even though they yet have neither the resources nor maturity to accept that responsibility.
A quick view of “fairness” that expects equal outcome would likewise find fault in God’s dealings with His people on earth. Was it fair for God to preserve the life of the three men in the fiery furnace and Daniel in the lion’s den, but then centuries later allow others to be executed for their faith, including 11 out of 12 apostles? These believers did not experience “equality of outcome,” but God’s dealings were JUST, WISE, and served His plan of salvation for those individuals as well as the whole Church.
Was it FAIR for God to make Abraham so rich and the widow who gave her last two mites to the temple treasury so poor? Not according to human standards, but was it RIGHT? YES!
God’s dealings with his children are NOT IDENTICAL in earthly outcome, but they are FAIR and EQUAL in serving toward the spiritual goals of God’s Kingdom—a kingdom like none other.
In matters of sin and grace we are equal before God and God deals with us in the same manner and with the same blessings. There is much to learn and about which to be reminded as we hear from Jesus that The kingdom of heaven is like A WAGE: REJOICE IN THE EQUALITY I. Equality of need = the wages of sin; II. Equality of grace = the gift of God; III. Equality of joy = the eternity of heaven.
To better understand this parable of Jesus, we go back to events that led up to Jesus’ telling of the parable (Matthew 19:16ff)…
A rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, knowing that this man needed to first of all recognize his sin, directed him to the Law. But the man responded, “I’ve kept the whole law since I was young. What else must I do?” Jesus, knowing where this man’s weakness lay said, “Sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me.” The man couldn’t do it. He loved his riches more than he loved Jesus. His sin was exposed and he went away sorrowful.
After the man left, Jesus commenting to the disciples told them, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). When the disciples heard this they were intensely astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” To which Jesus answered with the same words the angel Gabriel had spoken to Mary after telling her she would be Jesus’ mother: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
Then Peter, having heard Jesus tell the man to sell everything and follow Him, said, ”See, we (the other disciples and I) have left all and followed you, therefore what shall we have…?” (Matthew 19:27). The rich man left without sacrificing his earthly goods. Peter had forsaken everything else to follow Jesus and now wanted to know, “I’ve done it, now what do I get?”
Jesus answered Peter’s question by telling him that those who follow Him will receive blessing here on earth, but more importantly receive blessing in heaven. But Jesus also spoke words of caution saying, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 19:20). Jesus wanted to carefully warn the disciples lest they begin to think in terms of “what’s in it for me as I follow You, Jesus?” Jesus then continued with the parable we have just heard.
In Jesus’ parable, the day started at 6:00 a.m. when a landowner went into the marketplace to find day laborers for his vineyard. The owner made a contract with a group of workers to do a day’s labor for a denarius—a very typical day’s wage. Again at 9:00 a.m. the owner went out, found more workers, and told them he would pay whatever was right. Again at noon, again at 3:00 p.m., and again at 5:00 p.m. the owner went to the market place. Each time he gathered more workers and each time he told the new hires that he would give them whatever was right.
At 6:00 that evening, when the work day was finished, the steward gave the workers their wages. He started with those who had only worked one hour and gave them a denarius. Up the line, the steward paid worker after worker and EVERY worker received a denarius. Those who were hired first now expected MORE. They had gladly agreed to a denarius, but now they thought “if those people who only worked an hour received a denarius, then it would only be FAIR for us to receive more!”
When these workers did NOT receive more money they grumbled and complained. The FAIRNESS of the wage to which they had agreed did not change. What had been FAIR at 6:00 in the morning was still a fair day’s wage at 6:00 in the evening, but they had seen what the others received. Had these workers not seen what the others received they would have been satisfied, but now they wanted more and grumbled. The landowner asked one of these workers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” [v.15] Then, at the close of the parable, Jesus repeats the cautionary words He had spoken before the parable: “So the last will be first and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen.” [v. 16]
In this parable, we find warning against the pride that assumes it has reward coming and if it is in some way “better” than someone else it will receive even more.
The parable also gives comfort to the humble sorrow that questions whether it deserves to receive any reward at all.
If we were to demand rigid fairness and justice, spiritually speaking, we would be asking for hell for every one of us. The apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). Sin separates the sinner from God. All who are living apart from Christ are still in their sin and are spiritually DEAD right now, even though they may be very much alive on the earth! Sin brought physical death into this world, so now each of us has death waiting for us at the end of this life. Sin further leads to ETERNAL DEATH in hell. It doesn’t matter what the sin is—EVERY SIN earns the judgment of DEATH.
When God records in the Scriptures, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4), He doesn’t qualify that statement with a number or degree. There is no formula like “The soul that sins 9456 times shall die, but one less and you’re OK.” There is no formula such as “The soul that has more ‘big’ sins than ‘little’ ones shall die.” It is simply, “THE SOUL THAT SINS SHALL DIE.” In James, we hear further explanation when he writes, “Whoever shall keep the whole law and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
If all sins are equally condemning before God, why then do we treat some sins differently than others? The answer lies in the difference between “guilt” and “consequence.” Consider a few examples…
Compare stealing an answer by cheating on an assignment with stealing clothes from a department store. The two thefts are equally sin. They are equally needing repentance and forgiveness from Christ. They are situations in equal need of discipline, but the type and degree of consequence will be different. Both are sins in God’s eyes, but the shoplifting from the department store includes the breaking of a civil law in addition to the sin against God and it will, therefore, carry a greater earthly consequence.
Sexual sins that never leave the mind or heart and are never acted upon physically are just as much a sin in God’s eyes as is the accomplishment of physical adultery. However, the consequence & impact of the physical adultery is greater than the sins that stayed in the mind and heart, because of the involvement of another person in the sin.
In Scripture, God prescribes death for someone who takes another person’s life, whereas with stealing He does not. Both are equally sins, but while you can repay the million dollars you stole, you can never return someone’s life.
Therefore, although we each have our own pet sins, our own particular weaknesses; although our sins are going to have differing consequences and impact throughout our lives; although we will always be able to find someone who is externally a far more noticeable sinner than we are; and although we know of people like Osama Bin Laden whose whole life and actions we might wish to equate with evil itself; although all of these things are true, the GUILT of the sin is exactly the same, no matter what it is. The condemnation that lies upon ALL SINNERS is equal. The wages of sin is death! Period! All inclusive!
Is this equality in sin something about which we will rejoice!? No, not of itself, but understanding that we are all equally in need of a Savior leads to rejoicing when God gives us that salvation by His grace…
In the same verse from Romans that describes the wages of sin, the apostle Paul continues, “BUT the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
JUSTICE is not served without payment for the debt of our sin. That justice was brought down upon Christ when He was crucified on the cross. Jesus paid the debt of our sins’ guilt. He was our substitute. When Jesus paid the price of our sin as our substitute, it was just as if we ourselves had paid that debt. In Isaiah we hear the prophesy, “HE (Jesus) was wounded for our transgressions, HE was bruised for OUR iniquities…” (Isaiah 53:5) We are SO CLOSELY JOINED to Jesus, our Substitute, that everything He did is OURS. Jesus, our Savior and substitute has earned the blessings of forgiveness and salvation for us. To the Romans, Paul also wrote, “…if we have been united together in the likeness of his death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection!” (Romans 6:5)
We cannot boast and say, “I’ve earned eternal life” as if it came out of my own works. But we CAN say, “I have earned the reward of eternal life through my Savior, my substitute.” Salvation is YOURS!! It belongs to YOU!! Jesus was your substitute so what He earned, YOU own and in that you can boast. “God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Galatians 6:14).
The cross of Christ has earned salvation. Jesus won salvation for THE WHOLE WORLD. We are all—all sinners—equally under God’s grace. We have all been equally redeemed by Christ. The most wicked, externally sinful person you can find has been redeemed by Christ. Every sinner has the grace of Christ extended to him. Whether he believes that and receives forgiveness through faith is another matter, but he has equality of grace and salvation in Jesus our Savior.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” To this we’d say, “YES and AMEN! No such wicked person could be in heaven!” That is true, BUT hear the powerful next words of Paul: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
The Corinthian congregation had former homosexuals, former adulterers, former thieves, and idolaters. “Such WERE some of you.” There is a way out of sin and a sinful life through Christ. There is grace for every sinner. All of us is condemned by our sin (the wages of sin). We are all equally in need of salvation, and God showers an equality of grace upon us. It is grace so remarkable and so wonderful that even the most confirmed of sinners can be led to repentance and turned from their sin to Christ.
We might at times have the sense somewhere in the deep corners of our minds and hearts that the “really wicked” people don’t have the possibility of salvation. We ought not to sell God’s grace short. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Romans 5:2).
If someone you know to be incredibly evil and wicked were to repent of his sin and be brought to faith, would you begrudge that person of salvation because he had lived such an awful life? The apostle Paul once murdered Christians and yet we regard him highly. As the landowner asked in Jesus’ parable, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” [v.15] Should we begrudge anyone of God’s grace? God would say, “No” for His grace is there for all.
As we consider how to apply this parable and the equality of sin and the equality of grace to our lives, there are a number of ways for us to do so. A seminary professor once commented that this parable is for the “best members” of a congregation, for the pastors, for the ones who “always do the work around the church,” and for anyone who might be tempted to think that somehow he has an edge over another sinner. Any hint of the flesh rising up to the idea that “I am doing something more than someone else,” or any sense of disgruntlement because “I’m left all alone to do it” are attitudes against which we can apply this parable.
Does someone else’s inattentiveness to the work of God’s Kingdom change my desire to serve the Lord? Does it change my joy at the grace and salvation God has given me? No. Those who are inattentive need another message namely, that faith without works is dead (cf: James 2); but this parable serves as a warning to those of us who may become secure or maybe even a tad proud in how we live and what we do.
This parable is a warning that we ought not complain about the goodness of God toward other sinners. Us?!? Would we ever complain about God’s goodness to others? Would we do that? No We would never do that! Perhaps not outwardly, perhaps not willfully, but remember we still have our sinful flesh and in the secret confines of our hearts and in the conversations that take place in private, consider that the possibility for such thoughts is there.
We need to beware of the “older brother syndrome” as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Forgiving Father. The older brother was upset because his father gladly received his younger brother home after he had wasted his inheritance with riotous living. Are we at times guilty of harboring the feelings of the older brother? Could we be less excited when someone who has not lived as uprightly as we have lived is blessed in some way? Are we excited when people are brought to faith (even if they aren’t our most favorite person on earth? Do we do all that we can to call someone back from wandering in sin?
In Corinth there was division because people rated themselves better than others in light of whom they were following. Paul wrote to them, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you…that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).
In the book of James, the apostle warns against favoritism: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4).
Certainly, we would never show such favoritism outwardly, but do we at times look askance at someone who is not dressed quite as well as we think he should be for worship? Or maybe we look a little bit questioningly at someone who maybe doesn’t realize that his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Do we view someone in terms of what he can do for us church—instead of what we can do for him?
All of these are traps into which we might fall and tendencies toward which we might lean, and they all come down to some sort of self-satisfaction in the reward we are going to earn. Remember that although we are equally under the condemnation of sin, we are equally under grace as well.
The words of Jesus in His parable also provide comfort like that of the hymn stanza: “Today Thy mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been, however long from mercy our hearts have turned away, Thy precious blood can cleanse us and make us white today.” [TLH 279, st. 1]
Every worker in the parable received the same wage. The news that we are all receiving the same grace from God is a tremendous comfort lest I become discouraged into thinking that I don’t deserve this gift nearly as much as you. Whenever we feel down and depressed by thinking of our sins, we can remember that the grace of God is given equally to all of us.
If this life seems to be terribly unfair, you can remember the words of Luther who wrote: “Though I have a more difficult station than the master or the mistress of the house; though I be not so powerful as a prince, king, or emperor, yet will I not murmur about it, but gladly and willingly remain in my station until God deals differently with me…In the meantime I comfort myself with this fact that I know neither emperor nor king has another Christ nor more of Christ than I.” (Popular Commentary, NT Vol. 1, Kretzmann, p. 110). Or recall Jesus’ words to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God is dealing with us all according to His grace and equally so.
As God deals with us equally according to His grace we also reach the equality of joy in the eternity of heaven. No matter what this earth holds, all of it will become a distant memory in the joy of eternal life.
In the Gospel account of John, we hear Jesus’ words, “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
In heaven, there is a place for you. It is a beautiful place. It is a place of JOY—the joy of being forever with the Lord. Hear a few of the descriptions found in Revelation: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away…I saw no temple in it [the city—New Jerusalem], for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light…there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Revelation 21:2,22-23,27).
Every bit of suffering, every bit of sorrow, every bit of trouble, disappointment, anything at all that is less than perfectly happy in this life will be GONE.
At times, artists and writers have done a disservice to heaven by portraying it as a place in which we will all just sit around, play harps, and sing all the time. This leaves some wondering if heaven might not be somewhat boring. This is not the case at all. We cannot fully understand the joy of heaven, but what we do know is that it will be an equality of joy. You won’t be disappointed. You won’t be less thrilled about it than someone else. You will see Jesus face-to-face and the greatest joy on this earth will forgotten because it is nothing compared to what you have in heaven. The greatest misery on this earth will be forgotten because it will be as nothing compared to the glory of heaven.
What if I’m not real eager for heaven? What if I really like this life? What if I’m not sure about how good heaven is going to be? TRUST GOD. Has He let you down before? Has His Word ever proven false? No! When God tells you that heaven is a joy you will experience forever, a joy beyond comparison, something for which He sent His Son to earn for you, then you can be confident that you will love being there forever and ever.
It cost Jesus His blood to win heaven for you. That is expensive. No gift that cost the Son of God His blood will disappoint or be less than our greatest dreams. We are equally sinful, but by God’s grace we have eternal joy to which we look forward. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.